Published October 19, 2020
Although sweeping eviction bans issued during the COVID-19 pandemic by the federal and many state governments have temporarily halted the removal of unemployed tenants from their homes, the current public health crisis has actually amplified, rather than created, what is a festering national housing issue, according to a UB social work researcher.
“Eviction has always been a problem,” says Kelly Patterson, associate professor in the School of Social Work and an expert in social welfare policy, poverty and economic inequality. “The pandemic has merely shifted our focus to an issue that for a number of reasons has never gained traction and never received the attention it demands.”
In 2008, fallout from the financial crisis brought programs designed to help homeowners avoid foreclosure. Now the effects of the pandemic should illustrate and inspire the need for similar resources to help renters avoid eviction, Patterson says.
But why did it take a global pandemic to bring attention to an issue that existed long before the economic shutdown?
Patterson says the national conversation on evictions started to intensify in 2016 with the publication of Matthew Desmond’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book “Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City.” A year later, with support from the Gates, JPB and Ford foundations, and the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, Desmond established the Eviction Lab at Princeton University.
“Desmond’s work was the turning point,” says Patterson. “His book was a start. Then came the Eviction Lab, and for the first time there existed a publicly accessible national database on evictions with interactive tools to help researchers and policymakers better understand the nature and extent of the problem.”
Four years later, the pandemic further elevated evictions in the public consciousness.
“This isn’t a new problem. The data clearly supports that conclusion,” says Patterson. “It’s an existing problem that’s getting new attention.”
Beyond the raw numbers, there exists the reality of the causes and consequences of the problem. Income stagnation, increasing rents and a growing need for additional federal rental assistance while federal investment remains largely stagnant are all cited as the cause of the eviction crisis.
“We have to build more. There’s no doubt that we face an affordable housing crisis in this country. That’s clear,” says Patterson. “But what’s just as clear as the need to build housing is the need to keep people in their housing and address income insecurity.
“Eviction is lost in this discussion,” she says. “And that has to change.”
The pandemic, however, is but one element directing attention toward eviction.
Patterson says data points to a problem that disproportionately affects areas in the southern United States relative to the rest of the country and affects a disproportionate number of African Americans relative to the general population.
“But now the geography has moved and the poverty line has shifted,” she says. “People are threatened with eviction who may have thought they were middle class before the pandemic.
“That has put more eyes on eviction.”
Patterson acknowledges that the pandemic presents many uncertainties, including the possibility of a spike that could further stifle the economy. But certainties remain, including the need to dedicate resources that can help renters.
“These evictions should not be happening,” she says. “We know how to put specialists in place and create the agencies that can help.
“That’s the response we need.”